Youth Month 2022: Theo Herman Gael Moundzounga

Youth Month 2022: Theo Herman Gael Moundzounga

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the youth of the NRF who are working towards achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young NRF-affiliated researchers who are helping to ensure a sustainable planet for all.

Theo Herman Gael Moundzounga is currently putting his research into practice and working on the foundation for a lucrative activity/business in water and wastewater treatment. He was funded by the NRF for his Master’s studies (2018 – 2020).

This is his story…

I grew up in Franceville in south-east Gabon, a town in the Haut-Ogooue province. It is the third-largest city in the country. After obtaining my matric in 2011, I wanted to pursue a scientific career in the Chemistry or Biology fields. Since high school, I liked English as a subject, therefore I decided to carry on with my tertiary education in English because English is the language of science and international communication, facilitating knowledge accessibility worldwide. Thus, my parents decided to send me to South Africa based on the high standard of its tertiary universities.

Upon my arrival in South Africa, I learnt English for a few months. I then decided to enrol in a Chemistry programme at the Vaal University of Technology the following year. Chemistry is all around us and, in my opinion, it is the most important of the sciences today. As a science of matter and its properties, chemistry can be applied to almost any situation, from forensics through medicine to environmental sustainability. It is this practical side of chemistry that made me want to study it at university.

My overall journey at university was quite satisfactory as I graduated with a Master’s degree in Chemistry in November 2021. The knowledge and skills I acquired during those years of studying are impressive and I feel I am well equipped to put them into practice. I am very passionate about making a difference, and after graduating I feel that I have the “standing” to be able to do so: bringing or discovering something new through scientific research.

I will not say that my journey went smoothly but when you are passionate about something, you always find the strength to carry on. Passion is the fuel that inspires and drives people toward specific goals, no matter how unlikely or difficult they might be.

I am really grateful for my NRF bursary as it covered my general living expenses as well as some of the missing materials for my research project.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

Obstacles are inevitable in life and it is what sometimes allows your full potential to be unleashed.

Coming from a French-speaking country to an English speaking one to study was not that easy, especially the first few months. I had to first understand the language and then understand the course – after a while, I got used to it.

In research we do not know 100 % where we are heading in terms of achieving our goals, that is why it is called research. At some point, methodologies or results do not match your expectations. Then delays in your research arise and this can bring frustration and anxiety – this is one common obstacle in the life of a researcher.

COVID-19 also was an obstacle to the completion of my Master’s degree as the campus was closed for five months and I was unable to access the laboratories. During that time, I decided to maximise and focus on the write-up part of my thesis.

Last but not the least, I was shocked and saddened by the death of my main supervisor, Prof Augustine Enakpodia Ofomaj, in May 2020. This event really affected me and I had to carry on my research project without him. May his soul rest in peace.

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

My area of expertise is Electrochemical Sensing/Detection.

With the growth of some industrial activities, several toxic water contaminants are being released into water streams. When their concentrations exceed the permissible limits, they may have negative impacts on humans and the environment. My research aims to develop a sensitive electrode to quickly and efficiently detect and quantify water pollutants using electrochemical methods.

My Master’s thesis was the Development of a sensitive electrochemical sensor based on carbon dots and graphitic carbon nitride for the detection of 2-chlorophenol and arsenic (III) in water.

The United Nations identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure “…a better and more sustainable future for all…” by 2030. Which of these goals are you addressing through your research, or in your personal life?

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.

Indeed, the presence of pollutants such as arsenic, phenols and substituted phenols in water can pose health risks to human and animal populations. They find their way into the aquatic environments via various routes. Owing to their potential to induce debilitating biological effects, those pollutants are classified as priority pollutants and maximum permissible amounts in drinking water have been set by many countries and organisations, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Union. It is thus necessary to monitor their presence in environmental waters.

Due to the low contamination level and severe toxicity of 2-chlorophenol and arsenic (III), the development of a sensitive, simple and reliable analytical method is required. In this regard, electrochemical sensing analyses offer simple, inexpensive and rapid means for the determination of electrochemically active pollutants in aqueous media. It is worth mentioning that electrochemical sensors are also well suited for onsite analysis because of their small sizes.

In fabricating an electrochemical sensor, the sensing platform, i.e. the electrode surface, can be designed to maximise communication between the analyte and the sensor. In this way, high sensitivity and considerable selectivity can be achieved.

My research aims to monitor the presence of different water pollutants (qualitative and quantitative analyses) in order to obtain safe and portable drinking water.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

I obtained my Master’s degree in Chemistry cum laude, an achievement I am proud of. It gave me a sense of accomplishment – it is a reward for all the hard work you have put in. I am grateful to the Almighty God for the strength and good health throughout this journey! A big thanks to my supervisors, friends and family who helped me to achieve this milestone.

My first paper from my research project, A Nanocomposite of Graphitic Carbon Nitride and Carbon Dots as a Platform for Sensitive Voltammetric Determination of 2-chlorophenol in Water, was published in the International Journal of Electrochemical Science in 2021. It can be accessed here.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

My career aspiration is to deepen my knowledge in the area of water and wastewater treatment and obtain the necessary license and certifications (what I am busy doing right now) so I can provide water care services and start a water treatment business.

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